1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
Last week, as people began to file out of the church, I did what I do most Sundays: I met you at the door and shook hands, wishing you a good week and exchanging small talk. But something else happened last Sunday. As people met me at the door, more than one of you said something like, “I agree with you, but what do you do with this passage of Scripture.” Or “I’m with you on that, but I can’t quite get past this…” I think that some of you were a little bit apprehensive to say such things to me, but don’t be afraid. I hope that I am not too intimidating!
When I got home last Sunday, I wasn’t frustrated by all of the questions at the door and I wasn’t upset that you didn’t just agree with everything that I had to say. I was encouraged by it. I said to myself, “It is working!” The whole reason for doing this sermon series was to get you to ask questions; asking what our spiritual ancestors believed and asking what you believe. I know that some of these things aren’t the kind of things that you think about every day. But these are theological issues that require some thought and I am glad that together we are wrestling with some of these challenging areas of our faith. And you are doing it well! I think we are modeling how to agree and disagree in the church. No fighting, no excommunicating, and no accusing anyone of being the antichrist. And most important, nobody has called the pastor a heretic, for which I am thankful.
Today we are going to talk about another fun subject: sin. We talk a lot about ethics in this church, looking at how we are called to live as followers of Jesus. But today we are going to approach it from a different angle. Today I want to ask the question, “Why not sin?” Or, to be a little more theological, “If we are saved by grace through faith, not by works, then why not just go on sinning so that grace might increase?” I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to that question, but what I want to do is look at several possible reasons for why we should avoid sin.
The first thing that we need to do is to define sin. Usually we think of sin as something that someone else does that we don’t like. Sin literally means to miss the mark, and the mark is the perfection of Jesus. So if you aren’t perfect, you are a sinner. I’m a sinner, you’re a sinner, we all are sinners.
I like the way that New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright defines sin. He says that sin is anything that fails to reflect the image of God or anything that fails to recognize the image of God present in others. This means that sin is something that you do that isn’t up to God’s standards and it is treating others as something less than people created in God’s image. Anything that we do that is less than perfect is “sin”.
Sin is destructive. It destroys our relationship with God and it destroys our relationship with others. It can be personal, communal, or it can be corporate. Sexual sins, poor stewardship of money, poor stewardship of creation, poor stewardship of health, poor stewardship of relationships, all miss the mark of perfection and Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
So let’s look at the Schleitheim Confession, article four, to see what our spiritual ancestors had to say about avoiding sin:
IV. We are agreed (as follows) on separation: A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them (the wicked) and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations. This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who (have come) out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other.
When I read the word “abominable” the first thing that I think of is the abominable snowman or yeti, that hairy, ape-like creature that patrols the Himalayan Mountains. All of that is to say that abominable isn’t a good thing and it would be wise to avoid it.
I have been pretty tough on the first Anabaptists and today isn’t going to be any different. After today I will agree with everything that is in this confession of faith, but not with what I just read. I do agree with the reason for what the 16th century Anabaptists believed, I just don’t think it is Christ-like. It might be Pauline, but it isn’t Christ-like.
What Michael Sattler was likely drawing from is 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, where Paul writes, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?”
There’s that Belial again. Belial is a demonic figure in the Jewish apocryphal writings. In Paul’s writing and in the Schleitheim Confession, there is this command to separate yourself from the things of this world. And passages like Romans 12:2 can be referenced as well: Do not be conformed to the ways of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. But I believe there is a difference between not associating with someone outside of the church and not being yoked to someone outside of the church.
If we were to read on in Article four we would find that the early Anabaptists believed that they should not attend another church service, enter into places where people were sinning, or even associate with known sinners. And while I thoroughly agree that we need to avoid sin, and the Bible even tells us to flee from sin, I just think that the early Anabaptists took it too far.
We can begin to see why the Mennonites became known as the Quiet in the Land. We can see why our past expressions of the church have been quite insular. If you are not a part of the church, our church, we were taught to not have any unnecessary contact with you. It was a way of preventing sin from creeping into our lives.
So yes, we need to avoid sin, but if we are looking less like Christ in our efforts to avoid sin, is that not a sin itself? We can miss the perfection of Christ in our efforts to avoid sin when we do so by refusing to spend time with the tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes of our day. And we miss the perfection of Christ when we refuse to worship or even interact with someone from a different religious tradition. Unfortunately, I believe that often in our efforts to avoid sin we become more like the Pharisees and less like Jesus.
In our text for this morning Paul asks the question, “Should we go on sinning so that grace might increase?” If we who are under the grace of Christ are truly forgiven for all of our sins, past, present, and future, then why not live it up?
Well Paul answers this question. He answers it by dedicating what we know as chapters 6, 7, and half of 8 to answering this question. And to be honest, I don’t find that these chapters answer all or any of my questions. Paul talks about baptism and how in baptism we died to our old way of life and have been raised to new life in him. And since we have new life in Christ, we can’t go back to the old. Okay, but…that really doesn’t answer my questions. So let’s dig deeper and see if we can’t figure out why we shouldn’t go on sinning or why we should behave ethically.
One popular way of looking at our reason for being ethical is what we can call the “Quid Pro Quo Approach to Christians Ethics.” Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase meaning “something for something.”
The Quid Pro Quo approach says that if you want something from God, you must give something to God. If you want that bigger house and faster car, be a good little boy or girl and God will bless you. This is the whole give to receive mentality, and I reject this approach. I don’t think that it is biblical and I think it makes God into a divine parent that just wants their child to be good while grocery shopping so they promise the child a toy if they stop crying. There are many people that believe in the Quid Pro Quo approach to Christian Ethics, but I am not one of them. Sure, it might help people live ethically, but I think it distorts our understanding of God because people begin to think that if things are going their way it must be because they are spiritually or ethically superior to others. But the Bible tells us that God causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Another approach, and one that I agree with a lot more can be called the “Thankfulness Approach to Christian Ethics.” That is, we follow Jesus’ teachings and his example because of what he has done for us.
This makes me think of the song, O How I Love Jesus. You know how it goes, “O how I love Jesus/O how I love Jesus/O how I love Jesus/Because He first loved me.”
This comes from 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” We follow Jesus because of Jesus’ love for us. It is our way of showing our gratitude.
This approach seems to be more common in churches that emphasize the doctrine of predestination and this makes perfect sense to me. If you believe that God chose you to be saved, if you believe that God predestined you for heaven, and that you could not resist God’s will, then it would make sense that you would want to thank God for that.
But you don’t have to be a Calvinist to follow Jesus out of thankfulness. Last week I watched Shrek 2 again. In this movie, Shrek—a big, green ogre—is attacked by a sword-wielding cat named Puss in Boots. But Mr. Boots is blindsided by a hairball attack which renders him immobile just long enough to fall into the enemy’s hands. Shrek picks him up by the scruff of his neck and pets the nice kitty.
Rather than killing his assailant, Shrek pardons Puss in Boots and tries to send him on his way. But instead of leaving defeated, Puss dedicates his life to Shrek because Shrek spared his life. That’s the Thankfulness Approach to Christian Ethics. Because God spared us, we dedicate our lives to him.
Another approach is to look at ethics as something that God gives us for our own good. We can call this the “Protective Approach to Christian Ethics.” As I mentioned a few weeks ago, if we go through the teachings of Jesus and the ethical teachings of the Old Testament, we find that these ethics are meant to help protect us from our own bad decisions. Sin is hurtful, it hurts us, it hurts others, it hurts the church, and it hurts God. The Bible teaches us that adultery is wrong. Adultery isn’t just wrong because God says that it is. “Because I said so” isn’t in the Bible. Adultery ruins relationships, breaks down trust, and tears families apart. Lying and gossiping divides us from one another. In many ways the teachings that we find in the Bible about sin and avoiding sin is for our own good as human beings.
There is a danger to this approach, however, and that is that we don’t all view certain things as dangerous. If a person doesn’t believe that anyone will be hurt by their actions, they might be more likely to do something, even if we would characterize it as sin. Someone that abuses drugs or alcohol might say that they aren’t hurting anyone by doing what they are doing. I would argue that they are hurting the ones that they love, but they might not see it the same as I do. So the problem with Protective Approach to Christian Ethics is that what is and is not safe is somewhat subjective.
The last approach to why we don’t go on sinning so that grace might increase is perhaps the one that I most closely associate with. We can call this approach the “Covenantal Approach to Christian Ethics.”
I like this approach because it uses one of the most common metaphors in the Bible for how we as the church are to relate to Jesus. Many times throughout the Bible we read that Jesus is the groom and the church is his bride. There is this marriage between us and Jesus; we are in a covenantal relationship with him.
This is a little different than a child/parent relationship in that you don’t choose your parents. You love your parents in part because they first loved you and surely for other reasons. But when we get married, we choose to be with that person. We have a time of courting them where we get to know one another better. If things go well, we make a verbal commitment to one another. And if we can stay together through the time when all of the wedding plans are being made, we make a public profession of our love for one another before our family and friends in a marriage ceremony.
You can see the parallels between marriage and following Jesus. We have our courtship time where we get to know Jesus better, studying the Bible, praying, going to church, and asking questions. Then we make a verbal commitment to him. Then comes the public display of our commitment, which is the baptismal service. Then we live out our lives together.
In our marriage there are certain things that Sonya expects of me. I know that I can’t leave my socks lying around the house or my whiskers in the drain because it frustrates her. She doesn’t like a messy house and she doesn’t like a lot of other things that I won’t get into. So I pick up after myself and I wash those whiskers down the drain. Every now and then I might even cook supper and have it ready for when she gets home.
I don’t do these things because I am afraid that if I don’t she will send me to hell or cause me physical pain. It isn’t out of a fear of punishment. And I don’t do them because I am expecting her to do something for me in return. I do them because she is my wife and I am her husband. We are in a covenanted relationship with one another.
Sure, I could try to push my boundaries and ask questions like “What would it take for her to stop loving me.” I could try to leave my socks around the house and my whiskers in the sink to see if she would stop loving me for that. Or I could go further and see if she would stop loving me if I started flirting with another woman. But what kind of relationship would that be? A good marriage doesn’t ask What can I get away with? A good marriage asks, What can I do for you today?
We are saved by grace, but we follow Jesus out of covenantal love. We don’t try to see how much we can get away with before Jesus gives up on us; we see what we can do to show our love for him.
We must separate ourselves from sin. There are many different reasons why we should avoid sin; some of them are better than others. But I don’t think we are called to break off all contact with those outside our faith. We are called to love and serve those who believe differently than we do. When we set up walls and boundaries we begin to see others as abominations; we demonize them. It is hard to love and serve those we believe to be demons.